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IRAN – A different point of view

By Franz Scheurer

The first time I went to Iran was to photograph the saffron and barberry harvests and I loved the place so much I went back… and I will be going back, again.

Iran, portrayed as the baddie by western propaganda is nothing like it’s painted by malice and jealousy. What the west can’t control automatically becomes the culprit and how easily do we forget the CIA’s installation of the last Shah. Once the ruling government in Iran amasses riches beyond belief at the cost of the common people, a revolution is inevitable and as usual, a power vacuum must be filled. The current regime no doubt rules with an iron fist but it’s far more directed at the outside than the inside. Don’t ever make the mistake to assume that the people of Iran represent the government; they do not.

I often get the question: “Is it safe there?” and that makes me hopping mad! Iran is the only country in the Middle East that has no need for guns; it knows its own strength and it’s as peaceful as you can imagine. I’d rather walk the dark streets of Tehran than wander down Sydney’s CBD late at night.

Iran is an amazing place and it should be on the bucket list of every Australian. (Sorry US citizen or people from the UK, you are not welcome – you reap what you sow!). The local language is Farsi and although they use the Arabic script it’s a totally different language.

Iran had the most wonderful scenery and it’s incredibly diverse. It literally has all the different climate zones. Hot and humid in the south, typical dry desert climate towards the Afghan border, moderate further north, snow-capped mountains and ski resorts near Tehran towards Mount Damavand (the highest volcano in Asia) and maritime climates in the north. Iran has sea access both in the north and the south and they are completely self-sufficient and of course they have oil.

They grow anything from potatoes, wheat, corn to tropical fruit and lots of different vegetables. They have wonderful fresh seafood and superb lamb, goat and cows for meat and dairy.

Let’s not forget saffron and barberries. It’s a land of plenty, despite isolation from the West and it is truly the land of saffron, barberries and pomegranates. Iran satisfies 96% of the world’s saffron consumption each year. Due to political reasons Spain is deemed to produce most of the saffron, but in reality, much of Spain’s saffron is repackaged Iranian saffron and sold as a Spanish product. Last year’s Iranian saffron exports were in excess of 200 tons and considering that saffron is the world’s most expensive substance by weight, this is an astounding amount of this precious spice. (As a comparison, Greece was 2nd with a total production of less than 7 tons!)

Just consider that it takes close to 100,000 flowers to win 500g saffron…

Saffron comes from a delicate, small flower, the saffron crocus (Crocus Sativa) and it’s derived from the flowers’ dried stigma. There are generally three stigmas per flower and the backbreaking labour explains the high cost. Saffron crocus are grown in rows in Iran’s arid countryside, without irrigation and the harvest is in October or November, depending on the seasonal weather. The flowers are handpicked at sunrise and transported to a sorting facility where they remove the stamens and discard the flowers. The stamens have a small, yellow stem with the saffron pod on top. The yellow part is then cut off and the stamens are dried. This is a slow, manual process and most of the saffron is then packaged and sold that way and only a small part is further processed into a powder or used in ready-to-market products. There is a lot of inferior saffron on the global market that is either mixed with parts of the yellow stems or worse, not saffron at all but coloured stamens of other than crocus sativa.

Iran is also the world’s largest producer of barberries, a tart and succulent bright red and slightly elongated berry that grows in clusters on bushes that are about man-height and again, grow in the arid, hot regions of Iran. Their harvest time coincides with the saffron. Fresh barberries are picked by hand and dried on large racks. 4 kilos of fresh barberries produce approximately 1 kilo of dried barberries. The dried barberries are sorted and packaged and best re-constituted in weak black tea. Barberries are quite tart and add a wonderful tang to rice dishes, roasts and cocktails.

The people of Iran are genuine, friendly and incredibly hospitable. You don’t know what hospitality means until you’ve been to Iran. They would rather borrow money from a neighbour or friend than let a visitor down. They welcome you with open arms and are happy to show you their world. The same openness you even find in the most sacred of mosques and shrines, where you are welcome as an outsider not shunned as a non-believer.

Scenically it is a paradise both for the photographer and the traveller. Incredibly diverse, imposing, vast, seemingly impenetrable in certain places (until a local shows you the way) and this diversity goes together with some of the best food I have ever eaten, anywhere in the world. I love the fact that the sturgeon meat (the fish the caviar is from) is eaten; mostly just skewered as a kebab and lightly barbecued over coal, instead of going into pet food. The best bread is made in Iran and there are dozens of different breads and each one’s a winner. There are special shops and restaurants for each speciality, e.g. offal, kebabs, etc. etc. You haven’t lived if you have not eaten Dizi (a lamb stew cooked overnight in a special vessel) or Fesenjoon (a duck dish with a pomegranate and walnut sauce) and you must finish with Majoun, a local thick-shake with fruit and ice cream and the people who make it leave the trendy bartenders in the dust with their skill and showmanship.

Iran is also rich in architecture and you’ll find incredible palaces and mosques all over the country. The ruins of Takht e Jamshid go back to the Kurosh Kingdom, 515 BC, and the Pasargad (Tomb of Cyrus the Great) is from the 6th Century BC and is perfectly preserved.  I must single out the ‘rainbow mosque’ Nasir ol Molk in Shiraz as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. The Tabiat Bridge in Tehran, although contemporary, is an architectural marvel and the Grand Bazaar in Tabriz is listed as a World Heritage site.  Then there is an underground 2,000-year-old cellar the size of four football fields, also in Tabriz, keeping a constant cool temperature throughout the year. Who said there were no foodies a few millennia ago?

Iran also produces the most exquisite carpets in the world.

Am I biased? Maybe a little but I have been there and if you have not, then you should. I will team up with Parya Zaghand from Saffron Only, http://www.saffrononly.com.au/ an Iranian lady who imports the best Iranian produce into Australia, and conduct tours to Iran.  The tours will focus on the food, the scenery and on photography as I will be there to lend a hand and teach you how to get the best out of your camera.

Will you be welcome? Most certainly

Will you be safe: Absolutely

Will you enjoy yourself and be on the trip of a lifetime? No doubt.

Best time to visit: May-July and October-November

 

 

Score vs Performance

Ansel Adams once said that the negative was the music score and the darkroom work was the performance. This still holds true today, although we now shoot digital. When you shoot RAW then the sensor will capture as much data as it can, but the image appears flat and lifeless. If you shoot JPG then it’s the camera that ‘performs’, e.g. makes the decision what algorithms to apply to get a good final result. But your scope of manipulating a JPG image is a lot more restrictive than working with a RAW file. I have heard the analogy that if you bake a cake and it doesn’t taste right you can add a bit of extra icing or inject some sugar syrup and try to resurrect it; that’s working with a JPG. However the changes you can make are limited. If you work with RAW however, it’s like baking a new cake from scratch, every time you change the way you work with it.

Let me try and illustrate what I mean. (A picture is worth a thousand words).
Here is a RAW file, shot near Cameron Corner in Australia’s Outback:

Cameron Corner RAW

Cameron Corner RAW

Here is a JPG file I worked on:

Cameron Corner JPG

Cameron Corner JPG

You can see the difference: from lifeless to ‘in your face’ 🙂
I’ve adjusted overall contrast, pre-sharpened the RAW file and adjusted the exposure selectively. I applied saturation and adjusted brightness level, again selectively and then applied ‘output’ sharpening to the overall image. I also use noise reduction (although that’s hardly an issue at ISO 100). The final result has punch and matches what your eye sees a lot closer.

I import my RAW files into Adobe Lightroom and do all my editing in Adobe Photoshop. This is purely my preference, there is nothing wrong with using different software. One reason I do use Lightroom extensively is that I shoot a lot of stuff with a LEICA S (*medium format) and Adobe Lightroom has camera presets in the software that are from Leica themselves. It sets a great starting point.

New life for an old friend

Carl Zeiss always took a big risk producing a 500mm lens for Hasselblad as commercial realities simply dictated a cut off point between the ultimate quality and saleability – the lens had to be affordable. So the Carl Zeiss f8/500mm Tele Tessar for Hasselblad always displayed a bit of colour aberration at the edges and a little fall-off in the corners. Nothing drastic and it certainly was a perfectly usable lens and I loved it for landscape photography for more than 30 years. Many ugly reviews have been out there as people picked this lens to pieces and all I could say is that they either would never pay for a ‘perfect’ lens and they also probably never owned one and used it for long enough to be able to really write a detailed review; Be that as it may, I have found the perfect use for this super lens:
Hasselblad Carl Zeiss 8/500mm Tele Tessar on Sony Alpha 7R
Stick it on a Sony Alpha 7R body; Now the Sony Alpha 7R resolves 36.4 megapixels and when you use the Carl Zeiss 8/500 Tele Tessar on it then you are really only using the ‘sweet spot’ of the lens as the coverage circle (being a medium format lens) is much larger than the full-frame sensor the 7R is using. Ergo, no colour aberration and no fall off.
This lens is available on Ebay for somewhere between $700 and $1200 and the adaptor from the 7R’s E-mount to Hasselblad is available from B&H in New York and it’s going to be the best investment you’ll ever make!
Here are some quick test shots for you.

DSC05940-Edit

DSC05909-Edit

Sony Alpha 7R

Review by Franz Scheurer

I lost my Sony RX1 and not having a pocket camera was not an option. Looking at the RX1R was irrelevant as it wasn’t available in Sydney anywhere, so I looked for an alternative. My requirements were simple:

–       small

–       light

–       full size sensor

–       top quality prime lens

The only one that matched all criteria was the Sony Alpha 7R and it was available.

Small, full frame sensor, interchangeable lens system camera

Small, full frame sensor, interchangeable lens system camera

So I bought it and here is what I found to differentiate it immediately from the RX1:

–       interchangeable lenses

–       viewfinder

–       36.3 MP

Now I use this camera as a pocket camera so I don’t really want any other lenses and the 2.8/35mm Carl Zeiss is an amazingly sharp lens with great colour correction and it even comes with a lens hood. (The lens hood for the 35mm RX1 fixed lens was absurdly expensive). The viewfinder is superb and adds considerably to the usability of the camera, especially in really challenging light situations.

Lenses available in the new FE style are:

–       4/24-70mm Carl Zeiss OSS

–       3.5-5.6/28-70mm Sony OSS

–       4/70-200mm Sony G OSS

–       2.8/35mm Carl Zeiss and finally

–       1.8/55mm Carl Zeiss

The choice of two zooms in a similar range and no ultra wide angles seems a little odd, so is the omission of a macro lens, but no doubt they will hit the market soon. Please note that the Sony Alpha 7R has an E-mount but you will need the new FE lenses to take full advantage of the full-size sensor. There are a fair few APS-C lenses out there that will fit (and crop) and there are a number of A mount to E mount converters available. In reality, if you invest in an Sony Alpha 7R buy the FE lenses and although you can use other lenses on the camera, even Leica lenses, you won’t get the perfect quality/size balance and easy of use that you will get with the FE lenses.

The camera is available with the 24.3MP or the 36.3MP sensor and again, why settle for second best? The resolution and depth of detail that you get with the 36.2MP sensor are astounding. A friend of mine once likened the smaller as against the larger sensor as: chocolate cake versus chocolate mousse. He was bang on target.

A Bionz X sensor allows for more sophisticated processing over the previous one and it even offers ‘diffraction reduction’ lessening the diffraction softness you get when you stop down a lens. Of course the camera not only offers the standard aperture or shutter priority settings, program and panorama, but also a full manual override and manual focus with optional focus peaking etc. etc. I adore the ergonomics of the camera; whoever designed this really understood the way a photographer naturally works and every single control is exactly where you would expect it.

They do also offer an optional battery grip, a first for an E mount camera, and it will help with vertical shooting and holds an extra battery, but it also adds significantly to the bulk of the camera. Personally as I don’t use the Sony Alpha 7R as a system camera but as a pocket camera, I would not consider this. I’d rather just carry a spare battery.

I am impressed that all the new generation Sony cameras are chargeable via an USB cable; be that from a charger, from a computer, from the car, etc. It certainly expands usability tremendously.

Sony has certainly gone down just about every possible digital path with their cameras in the past, from dual autofocus to translucent mirror technology, to their NEX system but the Sony Alpha 7R is probably the single-most exciting release in years of our digital camera life.

The Sony Alpha 7R is not cheap; on the other hand it is superb value for money and in the end that is what counts.

For more information and pricing look up the Sony website. In Australia http://www.sony.com.au